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For the past couple of years, I have enjoyed giving a workshop titled Redeeming Despicable Characters. The following are a few highlights from that workshop.
As writers we have to consider how far we expect our readers to follow along with our beloved characters before they’re exhausted and ready to throw our book across the room.
Let’s admit it, authors occasionally are known to be overindulgent with characters. We love them. Because we created them. They blindside us. And we don’t always realize how off-putting they might be to our readers.
Though readers really don’t want perfection, they also don’t want completely flawed characters. What readers need is something to endear the characters to them. The sooner this happens in the book the better.
RULE OF LAW:
First establish the character likability before you hit the reader over the head with all of their flaws.
In other words, show the character in a sympathetic light right off.
Can you Say Sympathetic?
“Your best bets are sympathetic characters—characters with whom the reader is able to share and empathize, at least in imagination.” Dwight V. Swain from Creating Characters – How to build story people.
What are Likable Qualities?
For a Friend:
Loves you for you even when you’re being a butthead (from teen advice column) Translation: Acceptance.
The Universal Admirable Qualities of a Hero - According to Personalitytutor.com
Virtuosity – Skilled. Accomplished or good at something.
Sacrifice (willing to take risk for someone)
Intrepid (unshakable, unflappable)
Fortitude (backbone, grit)
Our heroes don’t have to have ALL of these qualities or we’d be dealing with a perfect character, and we already know no one likes that. In fact, using a few of those qualities goes a long way to make the point. i.e. This is a good man/woman.
People like people who do positive things or have a talent for something, not just creative either, but practical, everyday kind of talent.
Does the character have a profession that brings respect? (not based on earnings alone)
Or is the character an underdog working their way to their secret desire of overcoming something or becoming _________ fill-in-the-blank
Can the reader relate to the character’s goal? Is it a worthy goal?
Using Pets to Make a Good Point
“Animals reveal the depth of character in the people who surround them. All you have to do is show a person (your hero for instance) tired from work, pausing to stoop and lift a bug out of a puddle.”
Robert Peck – Folks is Fiction
Don’t overlook this avenue when writing a particularly privileged, edgy, or crusty character.
What About Empathy?
A rule of thumb for characters is to make them likable, which creates empathy for them. If we glimpse a bit of ourselves in a fictional character, we can relate – even if they’re super heroes, Alpha bad boys, royalty, or billionaires.
What are Empathetic Stimulators?
Any situation that is relatable, such as:
Character in jeopardy – a classic! (not necessarily life and death jeopardy – but we all know how it feels to have our back against the wall at some level – right?)
Klutzy or a Screw up – Something we can all relate to. This can help tone down an overly Alpha guy who may be great at what he does, but those big hands and feet make for lots of milk spillage and rug tripping. This keeps the big galoot real.
Good natured – There’s nothing better than a character with a sense of humor (Isn’t that an essential survival tactic for some of us?)
Uses a position of power for the good of others – Think about the billionaire here or “The Boss” tropes, they don’t have to be slaves to their entitlements. Breaking the mold makes them real.
Longs deeply for something just out of their reach – back to the underdog situation, and also something most of us can relate to.
The idea is to give the reader something to like or latch onto right up front, something to help them tolerate the non-stop conflict until that romance couple earns their happily ever after, the fiction protagonist wins the biggest fight of his life, or the Sci-Fi alien life form overcomes evil for all time.
Perfect characters do not resonate with readers
Overly flawed (despicable) characters need a buffer of one or two good/heroic or friend qualities to stay afloat
Universal truths – things we can all relate to – save the day for edgy characters and billionaires.
When in doubt, have your hero save a bug! Or leave a big tip for a waitress.